Fitch Upgrades Cameron County, TX IDR and GO Bonds to 'AA'; Outlook Stable
--Issuer Default Rating (IDR);
--$235,000 unlimited tax bonds;
--$125.1 million limited tax bonds.
The Rating Outlook is Stable.
The unlimited tax bonds are payable from an unlimited annual property tax levy. The limited tax bonds are payable from an annual property tax levy limited to $0.80 per $100 assessed valuation for operations and maintenance and limited tax debt service.
KEY RATING DRIVERS
The upgrade of the IDR and GO rating reflects application of Fitch's revised criteria for U. S. state and local governments, which was released on April 18, 2016. The IDR of 'AA' reflects the county's low liability burden, strong financial position, and superior inherent budget flexibility highlighted by management's willingness to utilize its ample revenue raising capacity.
Economic Resource Base
Cameron County is the southernmost county in Texas, and its largest cities include Brownsville, Harlingen, and San Benito. The county's estimated 2016 population totals 425,000, a 5% increase over the 2010 census level. The area economy relies on international trade due to its proximity to Mexico. Wealth levels remain well below average although they are improving at rates that exceed state and national averages.
Revenue Framework: 'aaa' factor assessment
The county's general fund revenues are expected to continue a solid growth trajectory due to continued population growth and economic expansion. The county's independent legal ability to raise property tax revenues provides ample flexibility.
Expenditure Framework: 'aa' factor assessment
The county's solid expenditure flexibility is derived from management's prudent budgeting practices and manageable carrying costs. Fitch expects growth-related spending demands to be matched by revenue gains, keeping their trajectories in line with one another.
Long-Term Liability Burden: 'aaa' factor assessment
The county's liability burden is modest and driven primarily by overlapping debt. The county consistently funds its pension at actuarially determined levels and the unfunded pension liability is modest.
Operating Performance: 'aaa' factor assessment
The combination of the county's expenditure flexibility, revenue-raising authority, and its record of reserve funding should enable the maintenance of a high level of financial flexibility during cyclical downturns.
Strong Financial Flexibility: The county's modest liability burden and ample financial flexibility are the key strengths in the 'AA' rating. Although not anticipated, the rating is sensitive to shifts in the relative strength and relationship of these key factors over time.
Trade, manufacturing, and tourism are all major components of the local economy. Manufacturing plants are a significant factor on both sides of the U. S.-Mexico border, with a major presence of maquiladoras, or twin-plant manufacturers, in Matamoros, Mexico. The Port of Brownsville is an important link with Mexico and affords the only entry point on the border accessible by the four modes of transportation. Prominent tourist attractions include South Padre Island (SPI) among others.
The recent conversion of a local highway into IH 69 was designed to facilitate international commercial traffic. The University of Texas recently consolidated two existing campuses into The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and authorized it to build south Texas' first medical school which opened this fall.
SpaceX, a space transport services company, broke ground on a $40 million commercial-only launch facility near Brownsville. SpaceX's first launch from this location is scheduled in 2017. A 10-year tax abatement agreement with the county requires SpaceX to employ at least 300 by 2024. Additional employment gains are expected from the relocation of suppliers to the area. Up to 12 launches will be scheduled annually and are projected by the county to further boost tourism.
Property taxes comprise 68% of general fund revenues, followed by charges for services at 13%. Revenue diversity is evident in the form of international bridge toll revenues (8.5%) and fees from housing federal inmates (7.3%).
Historical revenue growth has exceeded the level of inflation and U. S. GDP growth, aided by modest but steady AV growth. Fitch expects the county's revenues to continue this trend given the expanding employment base and strong demographic trends. AV increased by 2.9% in fiscal 2016 and the certified AV for fiscal 2017 points to a 2% gain.
At $0.40 in fiscal 2016, ample taxing margin remains under the $0.80 per $100 AV cap for operations and limited tax debt service. If a proposed tax rate results in an 8% year-over-year levy increase (based on the prior year's values), the rate increase may be subject to election if petitioned by voters.
Public safety spending accounts for 68% of general fund spending.
The pace of spending growth absent policy actions is likely to be in line with revenue growth but pressured by an expanding population and the growing service delivery needs associated with elevated poverty. The high incidence of drug-related offenses in the vicinity of the U. S.-Mexico border will also pressure the county's adjudication spending.
The county's fixed cost burden is moderate, with carrying costs for debt, pension, and other post-employment benefits (OPEB) equaling 13.7% of governmental spending. Expenditure flexibility is aided by the county's lack of collective bargaining agreements with any of its personnel.
Long-Term Liability Burden
The long-term liability burden, including overall debt and unfunded pension liabilities, is modest at about 8% of personal income. The 10-year principal amortization rate is about average at 48%. Overall debt is comprised mostly of overlapping debt. Continued overlapping debt issuances is likely to be accompanied with steady gains in personal income, leading Fitch to expect the county's long-term liability burden to remain modest relative to the resource base.
County employees participate in an agent multiple-employer defined pension plan administered by the Texas County and District Retirement System. The county consistently funds its pension at the actuarially determined level and the unfunded pension liability is modest at $36 million or 0.3% of personal income based on Fitch's adjusted 7% rate of return.
Fitch expects the county to remain in compliance with its recently enhanced fund balance policy (25% of spending) which supports a 'aaa' financial resilience assessment considering the county's solid revenue and expenditure flexibility and low level of expected revenue volatility. The fiscal 2015 audit posted a $3.8 million (4.5% of spending) operating surplus, increasing the unrestricted fund balance to a high $24 million or 29% of spending. Management projects fiscal 2016 results will post a surplus totaling $1.4 million or 1.6% of spending.
Improved and prudent budgeting allowed the county to increase its financial reserves in the wake of the last downturn, which was relatively modest for the county. Moderate increases in property taxes, international bridge tolls, and per diems for housing federal inmates allowed the county to avoid postponing or deferring liabilities, including actuarially-based pension payments.